How have government policies influenced farmers' decisions of what crops to plant?
In the past 10 years, the wheat states of Kansas, North Dakota and Minnesota have replaced wheat with corn or soybeans on a one-for-one basis. In Kansas during that time, wheat plantings have been down 1.5 million acres while corn has been up 1.3 million acres. In North Dakota, wheat plantings are down 2.5 million acres while soybean plantings are up 2.3 million acres. Minnesota farmers planted 700,000 fewer acres of wheat while planting 800,000 more acres of corn. This trend will likely continue based on the current government subsidies on biofuel production and government mandates on biofuel demand. Larger production subsidies for competing crops also put wheat at a competitive disadvantage. We spent two years leading up to the passage of the farm bill earlier this year trying to convince Congress that whatever amount of money they wanted to spend on farm subsidies, it should be spent in a market neutral way. This idea for “rebalancing” the farm support programs garnered little support in Congress, unfortunately.
What is NAMA's stance on early release of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for plantings?
The CRP is the fourth largest “crop” in the United States. For more than three years, NAMA has been working in coalition with other food industry groups as we seek the release from the CRP of those acres that can be farmed in environmentally sustainable ways. Minimum-till and no-till farming technologies have made great advances since the CRP began in 1986. Estimates vary, but probably one-half of the 32 million acres currently in the CRP could be farmed without sacrificing conservation goals. Unfortunately, the government has opposed any push for reform, and instead is hoping for good weather. Hope is not a strategy. We all hope for good weather, but if we get bad weather there doesn't appear to be any Plan B.
What types of initiatives does NAMA support toward improving wheat yields?
Wheat production is down globally and stocks are at the lowest levels in decades. Growth in corn and soybean yields, already far higher than wheat in absolute terms, will also accelerate relative to wheat. In order to compete, many feel wheat will eventually have to embrace advanced technologies, such as biotech. We realize this is an uncomfortable topic for some end-use manufacturers, but the time horizon of 10 years or more to develop a new variety means the discussion must begin now. We are doing that through a joint committee of the extended wheat foods chain. The group includes researchers, farmers, grain handlers, millers, bakers and food manufacturers. We have been meeting several times a year to identify the priority traits we'd like to see developed, and discuss the commercial market challenges to such a concept, if it were to occur. The industry is still years away from any potential commercially viable biotech wheat.
What type of research is in the pipeline for wheat that might ultimately affect bakers?
There are multiple projects underway, but in my mind, there are two key ones. In the area of wheat diseases, researchers are attempting to develop varieties that are resistant to fungal diseases that can produce mycotoxins, such as deoxynivalenol (DON). The disease that causes DON, Fusarium head blight, has severely impacted the profitability of wheat production in areas including the Red River Valley-another incentive for farmers to switch from wheat to corn or soybeans. Of global importance, research is just underway to combat the wheat rust disease discovered in Uganda in 1999, hence its name Ug99. This disease decimates wheat fields. It has already spread to south Asia and experts say it is a matter of time before it appears in the United States. Wheat varieties currently in production have virtually no resistance to Ug99. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and Nobel Prize winner, says developing Ug99-resistant varieties is Job 1, and we agree.